Engineering Workshops Now Available In War Zones
By Grace V. Jean
U.S. Special Operations Command has come up with a workshop-in-a-box concept that turns engineers in war zones into real-world MacGyvers.
The so-called mobile technology complex comes in five different configurations inside a shipping container. The shops are filled with machine tools, computers and communications equipment. There also are other tools for bending, turning and molding wood, plastics and metals.
“This is a way to take engineering talent, innovative capability, creative juice and get it close to the operator,” said William Shepherd, director of science and technology, during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, in Tampa, Fla.
Eight of these mobile shops have been deployed to various locations in Afghanistan as part of an ongoing year-long experiment.
“This is the end pipe for us to push technology and capability forward,” said Shepherd. It’s a way for the command and engineers to understand what the operators are doing and a way for operators to work with the engineers in designing, innovating and creating solutions that are appropriate for them, he said.
The project is part of a $5 million SOCOM program that seeks to expedite technology to the field. It is expected to double next year to $10 million.
“It’s pretty much for anything that bubbles up from the field,” said Shepherd.
The science and technology directorate also oversees a more traditional program of applied research and advanced technology development. Funding for the program totaled $19.2 million this year. Next year the budget is expected to jump to $23 million.
Focus areas include persistent surveillance, thermal protection, visual augmentation, small arms technology, wireless and imaging technologies, situational awareness and power.
In particular, scientists are searching for ways to identify faces in a crowd and to quickly locate video clips that are pertinent to analysts. They want to reduce operator loads and make troops cooler, more survivable and functional and they want to extend snipers’ sight range to a couple kilometers.
The command plans to develop digital multispectral goggles with near infrared and thermal capabilities, said Howard Strahan, chief for applied research. Officials want to pursue solid-state technologies that will help reduce the size, weight and power of the cameras and displays in both head-mounted and weapon-mounted devices. A request for proposals could be issued as early as next month and a contract awarded in the first quarter of 2011.
Power and energy efforts are led by Navy Cmdr. Scott Rutherford, from the command’s maritime program executive office. Much of the portfolio focuses on batteries to power unattended ground sensors and small unmanned systems. The goal is to double or triple the two-to three-hour flight endurance of unmanned aircraft, said Rutherford. He is looking at fuel cells, propane and methanol as alternative energy sources.